The Silent Lives of High Chairs
By Rosemarie Dombrowski Ph.D. After the painting High Chairs by Philip C. Curtis.
The landscape is barren, flat, sandier than the lower Sonoran. The expansive, blue sky is dappled with cirrus clouds. The date is 1976, the story unfinished.
Perhaps the desert is a perpetually unfinished story, a book in which things are unable to take root, find adequate sustenance for development or growth. Its characters are limited to the coyote, the scorpion, and the saguaro. Its storms pock the surrounding mountains with pellets of clay and sand. Occasionally, people venture inside its well-worn plot, inexplicably leaving behind empty bottles, old tires, a tattered mattress, perhaps even a high chair.
Philip C. Curtis was born in 1907. What transpired between his birth and his migration to Arizona in 1947 is of little consequence. It was here that he became the Magritte of the Old West, the “storyteller” that rarely finished the story. It was here that his odd juxtapositions and illusions led to what many have considered a blending of surrealist tendencies with nostalgia.
In the painting, Curtis’ desert is generously ornamented with the objects that share the painting’s title. Some are toppled over – five to be exact – crippled by broken legs, stricken by weather or desperate wanderers who were forced to use their parts for kindling. Six of the chairs remain standing, but only the one in the center is fully in-tact. It is surrounded by the trays of the others, a clue that seems indicative of weak hinges or even cross-generational usage. Perhaps Curtis is merely commenting on the desert’s inability to nurture and feed, though it’s also likely that the broken chairs symbolize human frailty. Alternatively, the scene could engender a number of grimmer stories: the loss of an infant, the starvation of a child, even the perpetual status of “missing.”
Who can assure us of the meaning of the details? Who can say which parts were derived from dreams and which from memory?
When I pull into my garage and see the wooden high chair standing prominently in front of the myriad storage shelves, I am torn between memories of what was and thoughts of what could have been. What I remember most clearly was purchasing it upon the urgings of my mother who was apparently less concerned with safety and more interested in posterity, the idea of creating a family heirloom. It has moved with me from condo to house, from shed to garage, never displaying the marks of usage that it should rightly bear. I avert my eyes from its pristine seatback, its unscratched tray. I wonder where the infants in the painting have gone, why my child’s mind became rusty like an old hinge, replacing words with unintelligible sounds. I meditate on the surreal nature of words like diagnosis, analysis, autism. The silence swallows me: the sound of wood on sand, of distant figures unseen by the naked eye, dazed and mute, wandering in and out of focus. I determine that I am like the desert: harsh and un-nurturing, unable to grow vegetation and sustain healthy life.
Curtis’ art often involves chairs, uncommunicative groups, and isolated figures apparently lost in thought…universal statements on the human condition.
My son and I crouch silently in the garage, reattaching wheels with nuts and bolts. I speak of myself in the third person as I strike large boxes that were once filled with shoes and supplements. No one responds. The sound of the mechanical door sliding along its track intrudes upon the space, creating purpose in the absence of language.
In the silence of night, I return to the same questions: Why the desert? Why wooden high chairs? Should we read this story as an “ashes to ashes” sermon, a returning of wood and flesh to its place of origin? Does the silence represent isolation, repose, or the loss of our faculties, namely, that which makes us human? Without language, are we any more human than a plank of wood, a grain of sand, a lone scorpion?
When I pray, I find myself returning to the same words – perhaps out of desperation or the need for repetition, perhaps because of my fervent belief in the truthfulness of art:
Blessed are the silent, broken high chairs; for they shall inherit the earth.